By Phil Clark

dalton_green_540The AFC North has been a mostly two-team division since 2002; those two teams being the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Recently the Cincinnati Bengals have made a bit of a charge in their bid to become regular legitimate competition for the Ravens & Steelers. Every now and again with any division where one or more teams reigns supreme, a newcomer will break through. This season could be such a time with the AFC North.

The Ravens had one of the more interesting offseasons of any team in recent memory. Between the Super Bowl win, quarterback Joe Flacco‘s big contract extension, and the constant talk about how good the Ravens’ defense will be this season, the Ravens have had plenty on their plate in the months between Super Sunday and opening night on the road against the Denver Broncos.

The Ravens’ offseason was mostly one of losses. The Ravens lost a total of eight starters from last year’s team with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin being the biggest. The Ravens lost leadership with Lewis & Reed and one of their best receiving threats with Boldin.

The Boldin move in particular made no sense only because of how little the Ravens got for Boldin after the impressive postseason that he had. To only get a sixth round pick made it obvious to me who got the better in that deal. Two things to think about here is that the sixth round or around there is where teams can find a steal in the NFL Draft and that Boldin is 32 and entering his 11th season as a pro. Those are both valid points, but you’d figure that the postseason Boldin had, the fact that the Ravens won the Super Bowl, and that Boldin didn’t want to take a pay cut for the Ravens would’ve intrigued a team more willing to pay for a clutch receiver.

The main reason people shouldn’t count out the Ravens in this division this year due to all their losses is that they have balance in most of the places they lost people.

A healthy Terrell Suggs and the Ravens picking up Elvis Dumervil after the Broncos stupidly let him go should be able to balance out losing Lewis at linebacker, in performance if not in leadership.

Even though the Ravens lost Boldin at wide receiver, they still have Jacoby Jones & Torrey Smith as well as picking up Brandon Stokley in the offseason.

The Ravens’ secondary has been up for debate for a number of seasons, but in today’s NFL having a bad secondary is not the end of the world in the least. The fact that the Ravens lost Reed and their other starting safety from last season, Bernard Pollard, as well as Cary Williams means they’ll be hurting in the secondary. However, Lardarius Webb‘s return to could help ease that hurting.

The Ravens had losses on the offensive line, and that is where things could prove disastrous if the Ravens haven’t been able to balance out their losses. This will be the big question for the Ravens all season, and it mainly has to do who the linemen are protecting more than the linemen themselves. With the Ravens having just signed Flacco to a historic extension, the need to protect him and keep him safe on the field is higher than ever before for the Ravens’ offensive line.

What the AFC North may come down to is one thing: the simple fact that this year is the year for this Bengals team to win this division, if they’re ever going to win the AFC North.

The Bengals have been building something for the last couple of seasons with a youth movement, and now that youth is maturing in front of our eyes to the point where they are good enough to seize a real opportunity. This season has provided the Bengals with a real opportunity. There could be future opportunities for the Bengals, but my guess is that once the Ravens and Steelers stabilize themselves, it’s going to be just as hard for the Bengals to win their division as it was when their roster was young and inexperienced. This is the season where the planets may align for the Bengals.

The Cleveland Browns are still the Cleveland Browns, so they won’t be a factor this season. The only possible way the Browns will even be in the argument for this division this season is if Brandon Weeden somehow has a second NFL season identical to Dan Marino‘s second NFL season. Past that, they won’t be contending for the AFC North this year, nor will they contend for a Wild Card position. They might be able to contend when it comes to winning six games this season, but that’s about it.

The Steelers are in a rebuilding year and that shouldn’t result in a division title.

The Steelers still have a solid group of receivers for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw to, but losing Mike Wallace meant losing your deep threat and biggest threat all in one. The foundation for every Steelers’ championship team has been a solid or better running game. Currently, the Steelers are struggling to rebuild theirs with Le’Veon Bell being seen as a potential future part of the Steelers’ running attack, but a foot injury is not a good way to start. Past Bell, it’s Issac Redman, Felix Jones and that’s it for Steelers in the running department.

The AFC North should come down to the Ravens and Bengals and their regular season finale against each other. With that being the case, every dog has its day and the Bengals will have theirs in December when they upset the Ravens in the final week of the regular season, and in Cincinnati, to win their first division title since 2009.

2013 AFC North Champion Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals

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Phil Clark

Born in Muskego, Wisconsin, Phil attended UWM and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Creative Writing. A fan of football his entire life, he began writing about football for Inside Pulse in 2007. Since then, he has written for several different sites while writing about football, mixed martial arts, boxing, basketball, and pro wrestling.

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Filed under: AFC, AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers

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